SPECIAL UPDATE: Evolution Opponents on the Offensive in Senate, House

(Posted 6-19-01)

This update was originally sent out as an e-mail message to AGI's member societies.

IN A NUTSHELL: A day before the Senate completed action on a comprehensive education bill that it had debated for six weeks, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) introduced a two-sentence amendment drafted by evolution opponents. The amendment, presented in the form of a Senate resolution, defines "good science education" and encourages teaching the "controversy" surrounding biological evolution. Amidst a flurry of other amendments, the Senate voted 91-8 in favor of the provision on its way to passing the entire bill by the same margin. Earlier, a group of conservative representatives had stripped a science testing provision out of the House counterpart bill in part because of concerns that the tests would include evolution-related questions. Differences between the two bills will be worked out in a House-Senate conference likely to take place in early July.


Last summer, proponents of intelligent design creationism held a Capitol Hill briefing to educate congressional members and staff on the failures of Darwinism and their alternative proposals (see a summary at http://www.agiweb.org/gap/legis106/id_update.html). They also lectured their audience on the moral decay that the teaching of Darwinism had wrought on society. A panel discussion was moderated by David DeWolf, a law professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington and author of a legal brief on how to get intelligent design into public school curriculum. Like most of the other speakers at the briefing, DeWolf is a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, a conservative think tank dedicated to promulgating intelligent design as an alternative theory to evolution.

Up until that briefing took place, the political debate over the teaching of evolution in public schools had taken place at the state and local level, but the briefing appeared to be a disturbing expansion of anti-evolution efforts into the federal legislature. That appearance is now reality with DeWolf and briefing speaker Phillip Johnson, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and CRSC senior fellow, taking center stage.

K-12 Education Bill Used as Vehicle

Education was a campaign priority for President Bush, and the first bills introduced this year in both the House and Senate (H.R.1 and S.1, respectively) are comprehensive overhauls of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which covers most federal aid programs for states and local school districts. S.1, entitled the Better Education for Students and Teachers Act, was passed by the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee in March, having been introduced by the committee's then-chairman Jim Jeffords (now I-VT). The full Senate took it up in May with hundreds of amendments being offered and considered. After the Memorial Day recess and Jeffords' departure from the Republican Party, debate on the floor resumed in June with new HELP chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) managing the debate.

On the morning of June 13th, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) rose to speak on his amendment #799, which he handed in the previous evening. It is a non-binding "Sense of the Senate" resolution, a common tactic used to put the Senate on record about a given subject without worrying about statutory implications. According to Santorum, his amendment dealt "with the subject of intellectual freedom with respect to the teaching of science in the classroom, in primary and secondary education. It is a sense of the Senate that does not try to dictate curriculum to anybody; quite the contrary, it says there should be freedom to discuss and air good scientific debate within the classroom. In fact, students will do better and will learn more if there is this intellectual freedom to discuss."He then stated that the amendment was "simply two sentences--frankly, two rather innocuous sentences." The amendment reads:

"It is the sense of the Senate that-- "(1) good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science; and "(2) where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject."

Santorum then went on to read an extended passage by DeWolf lauding the benefits of "a more open discussion of biological origins in the science classroom." Although most amendments, especially non-binding ones, are simply added by unanimous consent or withdrawn without a vote, Santorum called for a roll call vote to put the Senate on record. Kennedy, the floor manager, then expressed his support for the amendment. With nobody speaking against it, the amendment passed by a 91-8 vote. All Democrats voted for it (except Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, who was absent). The eight Republicans who voted against the amendment (Chafee, RI; Cochran, MS; Collins, ME; DeWine, OH; Enzi, WY; Hagel, NE; Stevens, AK; Thompson, TN) were opposed on the grounds that it was an unnecessary federal intrusion in a state and local matter. The full text of Santorum's remarks from the Congressional Record are available at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/R?r107:FLD001:S06148 on pages S6147-48, Kennedy's remarks are on S6150, and supporting statements by Brownback, R-KS, and Byrd, D-WV, are at S6152.

Whether or not one views the specific language of the amendment as innocuous or unobjectionable, this vote has become a public relations bonanza for the intelligent design creationists. The Discovery Institute put out a press release stating: "Undoubtedly this will change the face of the debate over the theories of evolution and intelligent design in America. From now on the evidence will be free to speak for itself. It also seems that the Darwinian monopoly on public science education, and perhaps on the biological sciences in general, is ending." The Senate vote is also being portrayed as  a vindication of the 1999 decision by the Kansas Board of Education to remove evolution from state tests (a vote subsequently overturned when several of the school board members were defeated in the 2000 elections). Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) told the Washington Times (6-18-01) that it "cleared the record." In a speech supporting Santorum's amendment, he argued: "The great and bold statement that the Kansas School Board made was simply that we observe micro-evolution and therefore it is scientific fact; and that it is impossible to observe macro-evolution, it is scientific assumption.... [Santorum] clarifies the opinion of the Senate that the debate of scientific fact versus scientific assumption is an important debate to embrace."

How did this amendment come about? In the same Washington Times article, Phillip Johnson took credit for helping to frame the amendment's language: "I offered some language to Senator Santorum, after he had decided to propose a resolution of this sort." According to his web site, Johnson visited a number of Capitol Hill offices early in June to meet with senators and representatives. Johnson is the author of several anti-evolution books, including "Darwin on Trial," and speaks widely on this subject.

A Broader Offensive

Evolution also came up as an issue in the House education bill, H.R. 1. As passed by the House Education and the Workforce Committee, H.R. 1 included a provision mandating that students be tested on science in addition to the reading and math testing provisions called for in the original bill -- a presidential priority. Scientific societies pushed for the testing provision lest science lose attention as resources are concentrated on tested subjects.

Before any bill can be considered on the House floor, it must pass through the Rules Committee, which decides how much debate will be allowed, which amendments will be in order, and other procedural matters. The committee can also amend the bill so that what is considered on the floor is different from what was passed in committee earlier. In response to concerns raised by a group of conservative lawmakers, the committee (chaired by Rep. David Dreier, R-CA) removed the science testing provision in this manner. Sources report that a major reason for the opposition was that testing might include evolution-related questions.

Although Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) was assured that he would be given the opportunity to propose a floor amendment restoring the science testing provision, he was never allowed to do so despite support for his amendment from Education and the Workforce Committee chairman John Boehner (R-OH).

The Next Step

A House-Senate conference committee must work out differences in the two bills -- both bodies must vote on an identical measure before it goes to the president for his signature, which is expected. Conferees have yet to be named but will surely include senior members of the Senate HELP Committee and the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Senators Kennedy and Judd Gregg (R-NH), the senior Republican on the HELP Committee, will certainly be on it as perhaps will S. 1 author Jeffords. On the House side, Boehner and ranking Democrat Rep. George Miller (D-CA) will be on it.

In addition to efforts to restore science testing provisions, scientific societies including AGI are considering options for how to address the Santorum amendment. Given the clear public rejection of the 1999 Kansas school board's action, it does not seem likely that the majority of the senators who voted for the amendment share Brownback's opinion of its implications or agree with the Discovery Institute that their purpose was to "change the face of the debate over the theories of evolution and intelligent design in America." Indeed, faced with such rhetoric, they might just decide that Santorum presented his "innocuous" amendment to them as something other than the anti-evolution stalking horse that it truly is.

Special update prepared by David Applegate, AGI Government Affairs Program

Sources: American Physical Society, Congressional Record, Discovery Institute, Washington Times.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted June 19, 2001

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